Happy Tuesday, internet. We’ll be continuing with our weekly theme of musicals with another great song today.
Listening to a single song from a musical isn’t always fun if you’ve never seen or heard it before. Depending on where the song comes in the story, you can miss out on a lot of context. Because of this, we’ll be trying to bring that context into each post during this themed week.
Yesterday, we looked at Lin Manuel-Miranda’s “My Shot”, from the Broadway musical “Hamilton”. We saw some of the inspiration that went behind the song, as well as its similarities to ’90s hip hop.
Now, we’ll be moving on from “Hamilton” (don’t worry, we’ll probably come back to it), to look at Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”. The song we’ll be looking at is one of the more entertaining of the musical, “A Little Priest”.
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is a 1979 musical thriller with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The musical was based on the 1973 play of the same name. The musical opened on Broadway, and won both the Tony and Oscar award for Best Musical. Since then, it has had many adaptations, including the film directed by Tim Burton and starring, you guessed it, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.
If you haven’t seen the film adaptation or the musical, allow me to provide a brief synopsis.
Fifteen years after an evil Judge sends a London barber to Australia for crimes he did not commit, the barber returns under the guise of Sweeney Todd. The mad barber, hell-bent on revenge, begins killing his customers and shipping them down to Mrs. Lovett, who cuts up the bodies and sells them as meat-pies.
Our song of the day, “A Little Priest”, captures the moment when Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett decide that killing innocent people and selling them as pies is their new business model.
“A Little Priest”
“A Little Priest” serves as the Act One finale of “Sweeney Todd”. It starts out with Mrs. Lovett fretting over disposing the first of Sweeney Todd’s victims. When told she should go and bury the body at night, she answers, “Seems a downright shame”.
Sondheim keeps the black humor very much alive in “A Little Priest”. Mrs. Lovett bounces between present and past tense to refer to the dead man. “Seems an awful waste / Such a nice plump frame / What’s his name has… had… has”.
It doesn’t take long for Sweeney Todd to catch on to Mrs. Lovett’s proposition, and when he does, he hops right on the wagon. Staring out the window, Todd’s cynicism for society comes out, which he uses to justify his actions. “For what’s the sound of the world out there / Those crunching noises pervading the air / It’s man devouring man my dear / And who are we to deny it in here?”
The rest of the song has Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett debating over what kind of person to eat, and how they would taste. After asking if she’s got any poet, Mrs. Lovett responds, “No, y’see, the trouble with poet is / How do you know it’s deceased? / Try the priest!”
One of my favorite set of lines has Sweeney Todd commenting on class struggle, putting a twist on it that further justifies him in his mind. “The history of the world, my love / Is those below serving those up above / How gratifying for once to know / That those above will serve those down below”.
While I can’t say that I prefer “A Little Priest” to “My Shot”, it’s blend of dark humor, whimsy, and horror are right up my alley. Of the two songs we’ve covered so far, I’m infinitely more likely to listen to “My Shot” on its own, just to give myself a boost of motivation. I don’t see myself listening to “A Little Priest” on its own, however. It’s a fine song, but I’d rather hear it while watching the musical play out.
That about wraps up our discussion of “A Little Priest”, from “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”. Tomorrow, we’ll be back with yet another musical selection.